Miss Helvetica (1991) by Niki de Saint-Phalle

Being Swiss comes with certain responsibilities. For example:

We never, ever litter.

We refrain from making noise after 10 pm.

We don’t talk about money.

We recycle everything (I mean every single thing, even tiny foil-lined candy wrappers).

We do not boast or brag.

To the outside world, the Swiss define themselves by what they are not. They are not French, they are not German, they are not Italian. Then what the hell are they? It may come as a surprise to you that the peace-loving, neutral Swiss were, at one time (13th to 16th century), the most sought-after mercenaries in Europe. Those fierce mountain men fought and defeated large armies from neighboring republics, city-states, kingdoms and principalities (now part of France, Germany, Italy and Austria) by using both brain and brawn: 1) they knew the lay of the land (steep slopes, narrow valleys, giant boulders) and used it to their advantage; and 2) they were endowed with physical prowess (not to mention superior muscle tone) and had a fondness for unusual weapons–e.g., the halberd, a battle ax mounted on a spear. Fighting under any banner as long as it paid handsomely, my ancestors accumulated so much gold for their services that they had to find a place to safeguard the ingots, hence the notion of “banking” their earnings.

Not all my ancestors were mercenaries. Some led more placid lives as farmers, herders, weavers and watchmakers, traders and textile merchants, gradually morphing into captains of industries such as banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals. Living in a small country with few natural resources (in this case, water, timber, and salt) forces people to be creative. By focusing on quality and craftsmanship, the Swiss reinvented themselves as astute marketers of luxury products, for which they charged an arm and a leg. If you own a Swiss watch or ever tasted Swiss chocolate, you know what I’m talking about.

The mythic birth of present-day Switzerland goes back to a pact made by three guys on a meadow in 1291, pledging mutual defense for eternity and freedom from the Austrian bailiffs appointed by the hated Habsburgs, a powerful dynasty that was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Self-rule, self-determination, cooperation among their peers, and solidarity against a common enemy: those were the ideals for which the Swiss were willing to give their lives.

Wow! My ancestors were rebels. Who would have thought?…

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